White House won’t ask for encryption backdoor law - may seek 'back window' later

© Valentin Flauraud
The Obama Administration said that it won’t support legislation forcing firms to decode encrypted messages. But this didn’t provide much solace for privacy advocates, since the administration says it will pursue other means to get people’s data.

This announcement means that the federal government won’t force companies to build backdoor access into all of their services and devices, a measure that many intelligence agencies have been asking for.

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Instead of pushing for formal legislation mandating back doors, the administration has decided that it will continue its efforts to informally pressure companies to create a way for the government to look at people’s data when they are under investigation.

“The administration has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now, but it makes sense to continue the conversations with industry,” FBI Director James B. Comey said at a Senate hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, according to The Washington Post.

The FBI has long asked for a “golden key” to get into systems that would supposedly only be usable by authorized parties to grant access to systems and information, despite tech experts saying that such a measure would be a security disaster.

READ MORE: FBI chief pushes for encryption ‘back door’ despite tech experts’ opposition

“There’s no VIP room; it doesn’t exist,” Scott Montgomery, vice president and chief technology strategist for Intel Security, said. “If there’s a back door, there’s a back door for everybody.”

Tech companies seem to be going in the opposite direction of where government agencies want them to be. Since NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the extent of US domestic surveillance in 2013, users have demanded more privacy and respect for their data from companies.

This has brought encryption to the point where it can make data unattainable even to sophisticated agencies of the US government, who have complained about the obstructions this can cause with criminal and terrorist investigations.

Director Comey said the encryption isn’t just an issue for homeland security and federal law enforcement, but also state and local authorities investigating more commonplace crimes.

“Cops and sheriffs ... [are] increasingly encountering devices they can’t open with a search warrant,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

A senior administration official, who spoke to the Post under the condition of anonymity, said that the administration thinks it’s making enough progress with companies that seeking legislation isn’t even necessary. “We feel optimistic,” the official said. “We don’t think it’s a lost cause at this point.”

“As the president has said, the United States will work to ensure that malicious actors can be held to account — without weakening our commitment to strong encryption,” National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh said. “As part of those efforts, we are actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services.”

Internet privacy advocates consider this to be only a partial victory. Many are concerned that President Obama’s definition of “strong encryption” could include a system where companies can retrieve unencrypted communications from their customers.

The SaveCrypto.org coalition, which represents more than 50,000 people and over 30 organizations, has called on the president to firmly stand against attempts to undermine encryption. The coalition states that no “legislation, executive order, or private agreement with the government should undermine our rights.”